Playwright Jeff Talbott is taking the pulse of the modern American teacher — the passions, the weaknesses, the reasons one chooses such a career — in his new play, A Public Education, getting a staged reading March 14-15 as part of Pioneer Theatre Company’s inaugural Play-By-Play series of new works in Salt Lake City.
Shana Gold directs the reading. Talbott, a New Yorker whose The Submission won the first Laurents/Hatcher Award and the John Gassner Award for Best New American Play from the Outer Critics Circle, is in residence in Utah starting March 10, when rehearsals begin.
The cast of A Public Education includes Tobin Atkinson, Mike Brown, Cheryl Gaysunas, Alexandra Harbold, Tommy Schrider and Ashley Wickett. John L. Geertsen is stage manager.
The script’s public presentations in this developmental program are scheduled for 8 PM March 14 and 2 & 8 PM March 15 in the Babcock Theatre in Pioneer’s complex at 300 South 1400 East on the campus of the University of Utah. (Read the earlier piece about the plays and directors in the 2014 Play-By-Play series.)
Here’s how Pioneer bills A Public Education: “Luke Paxton [played by Tommy Schrider] is a high-school math teacher and the new guy in the faculty room. He’s ready to teach, but completely unprepared for the other teachers, not to mention the nasty things somebody’s been posting on the web. Welcome to high school, where an education comes in ways you never see coming.”
“I’ve always wanted to write something with educators at the center of the story,” Talbott says. “I have many educators in my life — family and friends — and I think their job is extraordinarily difficult and awe-inspiring.”
He calls the work “an ensemble play with multiple primary relationships.” Talbott explains, “There is one kid in the play and one of the things the play seeks to do is track every educator through their relationship with this kid, allowing the audience to — I hope — see the educator through the eyes of the kid.” (The “kid,” a high school named Tommy, is played by Mike Brown, a junior in the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah. This is his PTC debut.)
Talbott adds, “I also wanted to use this workplace as a location to deal with a specific corner of the internet and its increasing impact on us today. The proliferation of websites presenting a forum for anonymous opinion is fascinating to me, and that is certainly central to the characters in this play.”
While school violence is very much part of the American education landscape in recent years, A Public Education does not enter that territory. “That said, it is virtually impossible to escape [the idea of potential school tragedy] playing — at least on a low level — in the mind of any educator or audience member,” the playwrights says. “I think there will probably be audience members who feel that threat thrumming under the surface, wondering if something bad is coming. Something bad is coming, but it’s not what they expect.”
In preparation for the writing of the play, Talbott interviewed about 30 educators through an anonymous survey.
“They all answered 10 boilerplate questions without the worry of somebody knowing who they were,” he says. “I did this to promote candor. The play is not actually about the education system. I think there is a lot of writing out there with opinions about our education system and I didn’t know what I had to add to that conversation. But I wanted my workplace to be accurate and the interview process helped me create that environment; it also gave me a lot of nuggets of real-life experiences from people in the trenches, and many of those experiences were springboards for events in the play.”
Talbott has revised the play leading up to the Utah reading and will be listening for something specific. “There is one character in particular who has been coming into clearer focus through the last couple drafts, so one goal is to see if I’ve gotten that character to a better place,” he says. “I have a lot of questions about how this play works on an audience — it has a slower fuse than some of my other work, and I’m hoping to discover how it builds with an audience. I also am excited to work with my director, Shana Gold, and dig into the play with her.”
Guest artist Gold’s recent directing credits include world premieres such as Food and Fadwa by Lameece Issaq (New York Theatre Workshop), Lynn Rosen’s Goldor and Mythka (New Georges, New York Theatre Review’s Top 10), In the Crossing by Leila Buck (Culture Project), Hakawatiyeh/the storyteller by Nathalie Handal (Kennedy Center), John Walch’s The Nature of Mutation (Southwestern Rep/NMSU) and Circumference of a Squirrel (Austin Theatre Center/Taper Too, winner of the Austin Critics Table Award for Best Play), and Stanton Wood’s At the Pole (Urban Stages). She received her MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College and is a member of the LCT Directors Lab, Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab, and a New Georges Affiliated Artist. This is her PTC debut.
Talbott, who is repped by WME, answered a handful of my questions in the days leading up to the March 10 first rehearsal of the reading of A Public Education.
When you’re at the dawning of an idea of a play, what reveals itself to you first? Character? Conflict? An “event”? Is it different for each play?
Jeff Talbott: I would say it’s different for each play, but the thing that is the same for each one is that I never know what starts it. There are always several ideas swimming around in my head, and when one pops into some sort of focus, I start to write it. Usually there is some central moment that has raised my curiosity, so I sit down and try to figure out what that moment is and what leads to it. But honestly, like many writers, when I start I never know what it’s going to be; I just know I have to start trying to get it down on paper, and try to get it right.
How much is a Big Idea or Theme a part of your process, or does that reveal itself later?
Jeff Talbott: I don’t think about that while I’m working; I guess “topic” is something that occurs to me when I’m working — but invariably whatever I think the topic of a play is going to be when I start, it never, ever is that when I’ve finished a draft. The trick is to get yourself to the place where you can let the play fool you while you’re writing it; if you can do that, your odds of surprising the audience increase.
Jeff Talbott: It’s had productions all over the country; it’s currently in Phoenix and next month in Memphis. I’ve had contact with many of the directors and actors from the various productions, which continues to be very rewarding. It’s thrilling to hear from people working on it that they are enjoying it and finding it exciting to wrestle with. It sparks a big conversation with an audience, and every single production seems to find an audience that is as stimulated by that conversation as I hoped they would be.
What else are you working on? What’s coming up?
Jeff Talbott: There are a couple of new plays out there looking for homes, and I am currently in the middle of writing a new musical with composer and lyricist Will Van Dyke. Usually whatever I’m working on is the thing I’m obsessed with, and that’s no exception here. Will is deeply gifted, and I am having a blast creating a world with him.
Playwright Talbott has appeared at PTC as an actor in The Odd Couple (Felix) and Doubt (Father Flynn). As a writer, he was the inaugural recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award in 2011 for his play The Submission, which was produced Off-Broadway by MCC Theater; it went on to receive the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for New American Play in 2012. His play All the Stars in the Midnight Sky has had developmental readings at TACT/The Actor’s Company Theatre and MCC Theater. He is also the co-author of Critical Moment (with Stephen Kunken), which was a semi-finalist for the New Play Festival at Denver Center Theatre, and a section of which was a finalist for the Heideman Award for best 10-minute play at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. His one-acts For Nate and Molly and Tender were both given world premiere productions by the Yale Cabaret. Talbott graduated with honors from the Yale School of Drama. Beyond his work as an actor at PTC, he has appeared in regional theatres across the country, on Broadway (Sly Fox, Fortune’s Fool), film (“Julie & Julia”) and television (“Boardwalk Empire,” upcoming on “Orange is the New Black,” among many others).
Tickets to the Play-By-Play readings are $5 for PTC subscribers and $10 for general public. All tickets are general admission. Audience talkback sessions follow the presentations.
Visit pioneertheatre.org for more information.
Sponsors of the Play-By-Play series include Sandi Behnken, The Birely Foundation, Lee and Audrey Hollar, Michael and Jan Pazzi, The University of Utah Department of Theatre, and The Utah Museum of Fine Arts.